“Meditation and Competition”
by Lauren LaCourse
This last weekend I traveled to Chicago to compete in a tournament put on by the North American Grappling Association. I lost all of my matches and left fairly disappointed in my performance.
Mulling through every detail on the car-ride home, I came away with only one proud accomplishment: I had conquered the fabled “adrenaline dump”. Not a single time during or after one of my matches did I feel completely spent and upon this realization I turned to my boyfriend sitting next to me and proclaimed, “I didn’t even break a sweat!”
As he turned to look back at me I noticed his expression wasn’t nearly as amused as mine was. His brow furrowed as if to say, “And you’re happy about that?”
Which got me thinking, is this something I should be happy about?
Rewind a few months ago, I’m watching a documentary on Keenan Cornelius that Stuart Cooper had just released. As the camera closes in on Keenan, he describes one of the key components necessary to unlock in order to become a good competitor: the mind.
“Technical mistakes are fine ’cause you can fix those, you know? It’s when you beat yourself that it’s a problem. That’s hard to fix. Your mind is much harder to fix than a technical error.” – Keenan Cornelius
And that’s when I knew what I had to work on. In previous competitions, I certainly had the physicality down. But my mind was desperate. In fact, in training so hard and putting so much pressure on myself before those competitions, I had lost a lot of love for jiu jitsu and for myself. So I took a break from competing and decided to focus on training my mentality. I started meditating, I started making an effort to talk positively to myself and others, and I started having fun with jiu jitsu again. So when it came to sign up for the tournament November 1st, I felt my mind was finally ready to compete.
The night before the tournament, I slept like a baby. The day of, I meditated before each match and experienced little to no anxiety. I walked onto the mat in peace and walked off of the mat in peace, even after getting armbarred, kimura’d, and guillotine choked. As disappointed as I was in my physical performance, my mind held strong that I was there to learn and have fun. And so I did.
What I didn’t do, was win any of my matches.
But I thought I had finally figured out the formula?! Shaolin monks are always meditating! I had remained calm and centered and kept focused! My mind was right! I should be a champion now shouldn’t I?!?
No. No I wasn’t. Not even close.
So where did I go wrong?? Turns out, there’s actually a biological answer.
All of us humans have something called a central nervous system (CNS). The CNS is divided into two sub-systems: the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and the somatic nervous system (SNS). The autonomic nervous system controls all of our involuntary functions (i.e. heart rate, digestion, etc.) and is also further subdivided into the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system.
(If you’re a picture person like myself)
The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for controlling homeostasis in the body. It decreases the heart rate and enacts a state of calm so that the body can rest, relax, and recover.
The sympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is responsible for the “fight-or-flight” response in our bodies. It tenses up the muscles and makes the person more alert and aware. It also is responsible for the increase of adrenaline and helps muscles convert energy more quickly.
Both sound great, and both are absolutely necessary, but looking at the two, it’s pretty easy to pick which one you’d rather have working for you in any sort of exercise, training, or competitive situation. And since the two do not work at the same time, you essentially DO have to pick.
So if you’re looking to throw down BJJ style, you don’t want to grapple with the parasympathetic system as your wing man. Sympathetic for the win!
Now, what I did by meditating before each match only worked to deactivate my sympathetic nervous system response. This in turn, allowed me to avoid the “adrenaline dump” and remain calm, but sacrificed my heightened awareness and muscular endurance, which kept me from performing at my prime.
That’s not to say that the parasympathetic nervous system (or meditation) has no place at a competition. In fact, it’s as necessary as its opposite. If our sympathetic nervous ran on high at all times, our body would not be able to recover. Being able to engage the parasympathetic nervous system after each match or competition helps to ensure that we are able restore our body and its ability to perform at an optimal level every time we step on the mats. Research shows that meditation helps engage the parasympathetic nervous system and therefore can help with recovery.
So, whether you meditate or not, being aware of the systems that control our bodies can be a huge help and offer a significant advantage as you approach the stresses of competition and the stresses of life, working to make sure you perform your best at all times.
With much love — as always, Good luck and keep on rollin’.
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This, and other blogs from Lauren on her Live Journal page.